Wasps: Nature’s pest control
Most people have an aversion to wasps, and a paper nest built on a structure can be a major nuisance. In addition, many people are allergic to wasp stings, making them especially dangerous to those individuals. Many people can see how their ‘cousins’, bees, have a useful role in the ecosystem, but struggle to think of why God would create such a pest as the wasp. In fact, they have important ecological roles to play.
Types of wasps
Wasps belong to the insect order Hymenoptera (Greek: membrane wing), which includes ants and bees. There are about 30,000 identified species of wasp.1
Paper wasps build distinctive nests from chewed-up wood pulp. The nest has individual cells, each of which houses a larva, plus paralyzed insects for the larva to feed on. The queen builds a new nest each year to raise the first generation of workers, after which they take over construction of the nest. Freezing temperatures kill the colony, but the queen seeks shelter and hibernates.2
However, only about 1,000 species of wasp are social and form colonies. The largest (and one of the most dangerous) is the Asian giant hornet, 5 cm (2 in) long. The others are solitary wasps; some species simply find an existing hole such as those created by wood boring beetles, or they build or dig their own nest.3
Many species of wasps lay their eggs on other insects, as well as on spiders, and the newly hatched larvae eat their host. Some species, such as yellow jackets, instead feed the larvae liquefied insects and spiders. A growing wasp colony may remove as many as 1 kg (2 pounds) of insects from a 185 m² (2000-square-foot) area; about 100,000 insects.4 The larvae in turn secrete a sweet substance that the adults eat.5 Once the wasps mature, the adults switch to a diet of flower nectar and other sugary liquids such as fruit juice or other soft drinks (which makes them a nuisance at picnics).
This pest control service is so valuable that parasitoid wasps are specially produced to be released in gardens and fields.6 Without them, pests would run wild, or we would be more dependent on man-made pesticides, to which insects can become immune.7 National Geographic explains, “Despite the fear they sometimes evoke, wasps are extremely beneficial to humans. Nearly every pest insect on Earth is preyed upon by a wasp species, either for food or as a host for its parasitic larvae.”8
Most people associate wasps with their painful sting. The welts can be extremely painful and itchy, and can take a week or so to subside. Furthermore, unlike barbed bee stingers, the smooth ones of wasps do not rip from their bodies, so they are free to launch additional painful assaults. However, humans are not the primary targets for the wasp’s pointy end.
Only female wasps have stingers (though male wasps will bluff when threatened). Evolutionists claim that this is because the stinger started out as an ovipositor—which, as the name suggests, is an organ that helps in laying eggs.9 The stinger still functions in this way in the Chrysididae, also called the cuckoo wasp.10 However, this sort of devolution—the possible loss of the egg-laying purpose to simply become a stinger in many other species—is consistent with biblical creation.11
In correspondence with Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin made a statement that would become one of his more famous quotes:
I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitoid wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or the cat should play with mice.
This is a variation on the suffering in nature argument—that a loving God would not design a world that necessitates human and animal suffering. Creationists generally have a couple of responses to this argument depending on the particular instance. Perhaps the suffering is caused by the Fall. For instance, we would explain carnivory in that way. In some cases, structures previously useful for ripping tough plant material may have become used as weapons against their prey.12
But some things, such as complex instincts seen in the wasp larva to avoid vital organs while eating the caterpillar from the inside out, or complex structures like the venom glands and stinger of the wasp, seem to be designed. The creationist could simply answer Darwin: Neither the Ichneumonidae nor the caterpillar is categorized as a ‘living creature’ (Hebrew nephesh chayyāh) in biblical terminology.13 While they are clearly alive according to modern biological criteria, they seem to be driven entirely by instinct and do not experience pain or suffering.
Of course, the main argument for structures that seem to be designed to cause pain and suffering still applies—that is, that God foreknew the Fall, and may have ‘front-loaded’ certain animals with the ‘weapons’ they would need to survive in the post-Fall world.14
Fig wasps: an amazing symbiotic relationship
In nature, many species are dependent on each other. When two or more species are in a mutually beneficial relationship, that is called a symbiotic relationship. And the relationship between the fig wasp and the fig tree is a fascinating example of this. The fig is not technically a fruit, but an inflorescence, “a cluster of many flowers and seeds inside a bulbous stem”.15 So the fig requires a specialized pollinator to enter the fig. The female fig wasp enters the enclosure—often tearing off her antennae and wings because the opening is so small—and lays her eggs while shedding the pollen from the fig she hatched from. Once she accomplishes this, she dies and is digested by the fig. Her offspring hatch, mate, and then the males bore holes through the fig and die. The females exit through the holes, find other figs, and repeat the cycle all over again.8
Without pollinators, the figs would die. Without the figs, the wasps would not have anywhere to lay their eggs. And in fact, the relationship is so specialized that several species of figs have their own wasps. However, commercially harvested figs are usually a species that does not require this sort of pollination, so there probably aren’t tiny wasp bits in any figs you would buy at the store, or products made from them.8
Wasp venom: a cure for cancer?
Researchers have discovered that a toxin in wasp venom kills cancer cells—without harming healthy ones. The molecule MP1 targets lipids which are abnormally distributed on the surface of cancer cells, destroying them. While the treatment is not being tested on humans yet, laboratory tests so far seem promising.16
This should be a reminder that we don’t know all the potential purposes of even things that seem bad in creation. Wasp venom is painful and seems to be designed to cause suffering—but it may also be a key to developing new medicine! Many other ‘poisons’ have medicinal effects in small doses.17
Wasps play a surprising role in the survival of wild yeast. Wild yeast lives in grapes and berries, but only in ripe fruits. Scientists did not know how the yeast survives when the fruit is not in season and how it is introduced to each season’s fruit. Researchers at the University of Florence thought that wasps would be a good candidate, because they are driven to eat the berries and grapes during the summer months. The yeast survives in their gut as they hibernate, and is transmitted to the next generation when they feed their young. In fact, the researchers found that the wasps could “maintain a potentially unending transmission of yeast strains”.18
Wasps: part of the ‘very good’ creation
Because insects are likely not nephesh chayyah, insect death before the Fall may have occurred, without any suffering being involved. Insect populations may have needed controlling. As seemingly designed insect predators, wasps may have been God’s way of keeping non-nephesh creature populations in check. Of course, some species have degenerated into human-threatening pests because of the Fall, but many are still carrying out their ‘very good’ function today.
References and notes
- Wasp: Hymenoptera, animals.nationalgeographic.com. Return to text.
- Hadley, D., Paper Wasps; insects.about.com. Return to text.
- Ramel, G., An introduction to the solitary wasps; earthlife.net/insects/solwasps.html. Return to text.
- Pleasant, B., About yellow jackets and the benefits of wasps in the garden, Mother Earth News; motherearthnews.com, 18 March 2013. Return to text.
- In praise of … wasps, The Guardian, theguardian.com; 6 August 2009. Return to text.
- Parasitoid wasps (Hymenoptera), Royal Entomological Society; royensoc.co.uk. Return to text.
- But see Catchpoole, D., Pesticide resistance is not evidence of evolution; creation.com/pesticide, 20 August 2009. Return to text.
- Wasp; animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/wasp. Return to text.
- Lamb, R., How wasps work; animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/wasp.htm. Return to text.
- Raupp, M.J., Who’s cuckoo—cuckoo wasps, Chrysididae, 20 July 2008; bugoftheweek.com. Return to text.
- For an example of a similar devolutionary change; see creation.com/dawkbehe#flagellum. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., The ‘bird of prey’ that’s not, Creation 23(1):24–25, 2000. Return to text.
- Pitman, D., Nephesh chayyāh: A matter of life … and non-life, creation.com/nephesh-chayyah, 8 April 2014. Return to text.
- See Batten, D., (Ed.), Creation Answers Book, 6th Edn, Ch. 6, CBP, 2014. Return to text.
- Kline, K., The story of the fig and its wasp, 20 May 2011, esa.org. Return to text.
- Smith-Strickland, K., Wasp venom selectively assassinates cancer cells, Discover, blogs.discovermagazine.com, 1 September 2015. Return to text.
- Bergman, J., Understanding poisons from a creationist perspective, J. Creation 11(3):353–360, 1997; creation.com/poison. Return to text.
- Yong, E., You can thank wasps for your bread, beer and wine, Discover, blogs.discovermagazine.com, 30 July 2012. Return to text.